Scott Kanoff, artistic director of Austin’s celebrated State Theater Company, wasn’t prospecting when he came to The University of Texas at Austin campus in 2003 to watch a staged reading of a play. In fact, he admits that a colleague dragged him to the theater that day.
However, 20 minutes into the reading, he leaned over to the same colleague and said, “We need to produce this play.”
The play was Steve Moore’s “Nightswim,” and it was one of dozens of plays presented during the New Works Festival in the university’s Department of Theatre and Dance. By October of the following year, it was on stage at the State Theater, where critics and audiences alike greeted it with great excitement.
Set in 1959 at Barton Springs pool, “Nightswim” imagines a reunion between Austin luminaries J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb, who were also university faculty members, and folklorist Roy Bedichek. The friendship of the three is memorialized in the Philosophers Rock statue at the pool.
For Kanoff it was exciting to find a play that he considered theatrically elegant while having potent local interest. For Moore, a graduate student in the Michener Center for Writers, it was a boon.
“It was huge for my career,” he says. “For anybody to be a working playwright, that’s the kind of venue you need to get your plays in. It gave me a little more stature as a legitimate playwright.”
It’s the kind of opportunity that just may be repeated when the New Works Festival returns this year as the University Co-op Presents the David Mark Cohen New Works Festival from April 8-15.
The biennial festival is in its third incarnation, and it’s only gotten better. This year’s festival features 70 performances of 31 shows and is expanded to include works from many disciplines, including theater, dance, film, art and architecture. Fifteen guest artists from across the country will work with productions and offer master classes. All performances are free and open to the public.
At its core the festival reflects the belief that new work is essential to the performing arts.
“Without it, there’s no future,” says Dr. Suzan Zeder, head of the playwriting program in the Department of Theatre and Dance and co-producer of the festival with David Justin, assistant professor of dance. “There’s just the repeating and repeating and repeating of the past. New work is the place where the next idea happens, and it’s also the crucible where theater artists are trained.”
Based on the response to past festivals, audiences are hungry for new work. Nearly 5,000 people attended the 2003 festival, and the buzz for this festival is high. As important is the fact that the Department of Theatre and Dance has made the festival a departmental focal point.
“We have put the creation of new work at the center of our curriculum,” Zeder says. “Many places throughout the country do new work festivals, but I don’t know of any other place that has academic credit connected with it and says for this whole week, we as a department go to the festival.”
The week of the festival, classes are integrated into the festival so that students can attend performances and master classes. Many faculty members have worked the festival into their courses, and students have the opportunity to earn academic credit for their work in the festival. Even the festival schedule supports student participation. It is arranged so that festival performers are able to see any other production and won’t miss anything because they are performing.
The New Works festival began to take shape over a year ago under the direction of a committee of undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of disciplines. They were responsible for establishing an infrastructure for the 2005 festival, reviewing applications to the festival and deciding on the final roster.
“We don’t know what the festival is going to look like until we finish the application process,” says Justin, “because all of the ideas come from the artists themselves, the students themselves. We shape the festival around the best of their ideas.”
From October on, the festival is a frenzy of activity, with rehearsals beginning, sets being built in the shop, costumes being created, last-minute changes being made to productions and guest artists inserting their expertise where needed. For many students, it offers their first opportunity to produce a play in front of a real audience, not just in a classroom.
“New Works offers a great venue for experimentation,” says Moore. “It’s a place where people can work with artists not just from the university, but from the community as a whole. And you can see more work over the course of a day than over a month or two.”
One of those works this year comes from Genevieve Wiley, an undergraduate theater studies major who finishes her degree in May. Wiley is directing “The Transportation Project,” a performance that not only entertains audiences but also allows Wiley to test out her philosophy of environmental theater.
“The Transportation Project,” set on a bus, will receive three performances in the festival. The first will be an unstaged performance. It will take place on a regularly scheduled Capital Metro bus without the passengers knowing they are witnessing a theatrical performance.
The second performance will also take place on a bus, but with an actual audience. The third will take place in a conventional theater setting. Through discussions with audience members and a Web site created for feedback, Wiley hopes to be able to gauge how environment dictates experience in theater.
“I want to create theater that’s environmental,” Wiley says. “Theater’s future depends on creating a live and communal event that allows the audience to be part of the production. In a way, I’m testing that philosophy, and the festival is a great testing ground.”
Wiley also says that as an undergraduate student, it’s rare in a large university to be able to see your own work produced. But the festival is made up of work by undergraduate and graduate students, who also have shared representation in the planning and execution of the event. And it leads to shared opportunity. Works originated in the festival have gone on to have readings at Lincoln Center and performances in North Carolina and Georgia.
Students apply for the festival in the same way that they would fill out a grant application. They don’t simply present a script or an idea. They present an entire project. A play, for example, will need a playwright, a director, a dramaturge, actors and set designers. The team will have a budget and a timeline.
“Students have to present a project that looks like it is realizable within the limits of the festival itself,” Justin says. “The committee then has to look at how it can support those ideas best.”
Justin and Zeder work with the project committee to pair productions with guest artists, who include Seattle choreographer KT Niehoff and visual artist Michael Arthur as well as other nationally known artists. The multidisciplinary backgrounds of the guest artists reflect the broadening of the festival this year.
“Making the festival more multidisciplinary means that artists begin to communicate with other artists from other disciplines, hopefully for artistic growth as well as building skills in communication,” Justin says. “This is a festival that encourages cross-fertilization, and I don’t know of any other festival in the U.S. that has this incarnation.”
It also leads to surprises, such as the work created by Ledia Carroll, a graduate student in design, and Leah Davis, a graduate student in architecture.
The two have collaborated on “Permeable Boundaries,” an art installation that will create a walkway through the center of the fountain outside the university’s Winship Building. Opening alongside the festival, the installation addresses the idea of boundaries in two ways. First, participants will walk on the boundary between air and water. Second, they will walk through a fountain, violating the social boundary of not walking in fountains.
“Permeable Boundaries” might seem an unlikely part of a theater festival, but for Carroll and Davis, it makes perfect sense.
“We think of each participant in this project, each person who walks across the fountain, as a performer,” Carroll says. “We don’t want to script their experience, but allow them to have their own experience of being on the sculpture and exploring boundaries.”
All of this year’s projects are underwritten by the University Co-op. Festival producers are thrilled with the offering, which has allowed them to take the festival to the next level, better supporting projects through both development and production. The Co-op’s gift has also made it possible to offer free admission to each and every production to students and the public.
Zeder and Justin expect to see people lining up in hallways to see the shows, as they have in the past. And why wouldn’t they? They will have the opportunity to see work that may help shape the future of theater.
The festival reminds us that without the support of new work, audiences would never have had any of the plays they love, from “Macbeth” to “Death of a Salesman,” “Waiting for Godot” to “A Streetcar Named Desire.” They wouldn’t have had “Nightswim” either.
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Photos: Charlie Fonville